College of Arts and Letters guest speaker gives advice to aspiring writers

The event is part of a monthly series.


Jeff Ourvan came to speak at FAU to give tips to students. Kristen Grau | Contributing Writer

Kristen Grau, Contributing Writer

Jeff Ourvan discovered what he wanted to be when he grew up when he was 50 years old, after giving up his position as a corporate lawyer in New York to enter the literary agency industry.

After dabbling in everything from geology to law, Ourvan decided to follow his heart and delve into the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Ourvan was persuaded by his wife, who was one of Lyons’ clients, to become a literary agent. Now, he represents clients who are looking to get their works published.

“I wasn’t cut out for that business [law],” Ourvan said. “I’m much poorer, but I’m much happier.”

The agent spoke to a crowd of aspiring writers in the Majestic Palm Room Thursday night about the latest literary trends, query techniques, and writing advice. The College of Arts and Letters hosted the monthly event, which brings in guest speakers from around the country to speak to students interested in writing professionally.  

Ourvan now represents the Jennifer Lyons literary agency, a four-person troop located in New York City that helps both debut and seasoned authors get their works into print.

Jennifer Lyons herself was scheduled to speak, but wasn’t able to attend last minute and had Ourvan speak on behalf of her.

The evening started off with an overview of what genres are selling best, and Ourvan’s predictions for the market. He’s noticed that the young adult, sci-fi, mystery, and thrillers are all skyrocketing in the industry. But according to Ourvan, nothing is selling better right now than female-driven works about “girls who kick ass.”

After recommending the hot genres to gravitate towards, he warned the audience of students, professors, and the public about the competitive nature of literary fiction and the dangers of stale memoirs.

Ourvan then shifted the dialogue to general writing advice.

“If it’s your first book, just get it published. I was an author before I was an agent so I know what it’s like,” Ourvan said. “You’ve got to blow the editors away with the quality of your narrative.”

Writers don’t just bump into literary agents on the street — they have to send them queries about their books, which are similar to elevator pitches. Ourvan gave advice on how to structure a successful query, which he receives up to 20 a day.

“You’ve got to grab me in the first sentence, just like you want the book to grab me by the throat in the first paragraph,” as Ourvan advised the audience.

One of his all-time favorite queries was titled “Thomas Jefferson on LSD.”

Out of every 100 queries, he said he only digs under the hood of about two of those.

“You have to be tough if you want to be a writer,” Ourvan said. “It can take up to seven years before you’re published, you’ve got to be courageous.”

Ourvan then opened up the floor to a Q&A session, where he offered his projections about certain genres and critiqued queries the audience had prepared.

Jonathan Sullivan, a graduate student pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing said, “I learned a bit more about the business, what genres are selling, and the tone of a query letter.”

The night ended on an inspiring tone, as Ourvan concluded with “J.K. Rowling made $150 million on books alone, and I hope the next J.K. Rowling is in the room.”

The College of Arts and Letters will host poet Bob Hicok in the next chapter of the series scheduled to be held on April 5 in the Majestic Palm Palm Room at 7 p.m.

Kristen Grau is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected]